“I Love You” public art exhibit opens at Waterfront Park

“I Love You” public art exhibit opens at Waterfront Park
"I Love You" is the fourth installment in the city's Site See: New Alexandria Times’ Views in Old Town public art series. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

By Olivia Anderson | oanderson@alextimes.com

Visitors to Old Town’s Waterfront Park might notice something slightly different these days. Situated directly in the middle of the park is a 15-foot art installation featuring the words “I Love You” in neon pink scripted letters, a lambent declaration that was not there as recently as two weeks ago. It exudes a warm glow that washes over a hand-painted ground mural of patterned carpet, which is just as pink and inviting as the sign above.

The temporary installation, aptly titled “I Love You,” officially opened to the public on March 18 and marks the fourth in the city’s Site See: New Views in Old Town annual public art series, aimed at highlighting Waterfront Park as a civic space through an annual rotation of original commissioned art.

“[We wanted] to create a sculpture that brings people together and that performs as a place of encounters,” Roberto Behar, one of the architects behind the project, said. “Rather than being an art project that you are to look at, it’s one that embraces you and that makes you part of the project. It acts upon each and every one of us, bringing us a little bit closer to each other.”

The artists behind the installation are Argentinian-born, husband-and-wife duo Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, of R&R Studios. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

Behar makes up one half of architectural company R&R studios; the other half is his wife, Rosario Marquardt. The couple is originally from Argentina but moved to the states many years ago. They attended the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City and have taught at various universities, including the University of Miami School of Architecture.

More than a year ago, a community task force with the Alexandria Commission for the Arts set out to find the next site-specific artwork for the Site See series. Previous installations included Mark Reigelman’s 2021 “Groundswell,” Olalekan Jeyifous’ 2020 “Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies” and SOFTLAB’s 2019 “Mirror Mirror,” the inaugural installation in the series.

At the time the task force was meeting, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing but vaccines had begun rolling out, so the task force intentionally sought out artists that could bring people together through celebratory, uplifting work.

Several different artists competed for the opportunity by presenting previous works to the task force, which then whittled down the pool to a few finalists. R&R Studios was ultimately selected for the project after presenting design proposals in a lengthy interview.

“One of the reasons R&R was chosen is because their artwork is often very joyful, very celebratory, very colorful and bright,” Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, said. “The hope that the task force had was that by this time we would all be looking for that excuse to come together, [and] we would be looking for that kind of joyful, happy, celebratory kind of work. And so, Roberto and Rosario, working with that idea, have created a room for folks to come together and be around each other, especially after the last two years.”

The result was a social sculpture, a concept R&R uses in many of their works, that doesn’t simply stand alone to be looked at but allows the viewer to interact with it in some way. In the case of “I Love You,” the couple aimed to both bring people in and evoke an emotional response to a common phrase.

According to Marquardt, the installation serves as an “emotional monument,” as it aims to conjure very specific personal memories, desires and feelings for those who view it. That visceral response, she said, is created by intentionally working with common elements – such as the phrase “I love you” – rather than abstract ones.

“It’s intimate and universal at the same time. ‘I love you’ is a universal phrase, but everybody has a personal relationship with that phrase,” Marquardt said. “ … [Maybe] it’s someone that you love or someone you want to hear that phrase from or someone you may have heard it from that may no longer be with you.”

At the same time, though, the couple wanted to incorporate an element of surprise into the piece. Behar said the idea was to combine familiar aspects like the idea of a common phrase and the idea of a billboard into one, but without asking anything of the viewer, as billboards with common phrases tend to do.

The City of Alexandria recently unveiled its newest public art installation, “I Love You,” which will be on display through November 2022. (Photo/Michelle Goldchain)

The “I Love You” installation may look like a billboard, Behar said, but it’s not a piece of marketing subtly, or overtly, persuading people to purchase a given product.

“It’s not asking you for anything – it’s actually sharing something with you. It’s not transactional. It’s not asking you to buy Coca-Cola. It’s not asking you to buy a Mercedes-Benz. It’s not about consumption. It’s something permanent that belongs to each and everyone’s heart,” Behar said.

For Behar and Marquardt, the most important goal was to make visitors feel like they were truly inside the sculpture. Thus, they incorporated a ground mural carpet into the installation to evoke feelings of home and create an outdoor space for events and activities to take place.

“It could be for anything. That’s why we call it a carpet or rug; it will make it more welcoming,” Marquardt said. “ … It’s like the floor is telling you, ‘This is your space. This is your free space. You can come here and enjoy the space with other people.’”

“[It’s] more welcoming and a memory of home, and home is the City of Alexandria. It’s not just a house, that’s each and everyone’s home, but then there’s the city as home,” Behar added. “It’s an open-air room that belongs to everyone and holds a memory within.”

Ruggiero said the city plans to hold many community-focused programs in the park, all of which will be free, open to the public and posted on social media closer to the event dates.

For instance, there will be print-making exercises where participants make love notes, t-shirts and tote bags decorated with reproductions of the sign font. There will also be music and movement performances for visitors to watch and take part in, with an emphasis on the tango.

“The reason we focused on tango is because we’re trying to go with that whole love theme, and tango is thought of as the dance of love. But it’s also a nice tie because Roberto and Rosario are originally from Argentina, so that was just a nice bonus to go along with the theme,” Ruggiero said.

Through the ground mural carpet and the neon script lettering – which Behar said increases intimacy because “it’s a human message from one person to another, not a computer sign” – the installation aims to provide visitors with a cozy, personal experience that will allow them to bring home positive memories from Alexandria’s waterfront.

But in addition to a deeper appreciation for the city, Marquardt said that she hopes people leave with a newfound gaiety after a trying couple of years.

“We’ve been going through so many dramatic years, so I think we need [something to remind us] that there is love too,” Marquardt said. “[We need] a reminder that despite all things happening around us for several years now, there’s another aspect in life that we can hold onto.”

The “I Love You” installation will be on view through November 2022.